Francis Hitchcock’s War: Stand To, A Diary of the Trenches and its legacy. By Ruth Barton

 

I first came to Lt Col Francis Clere Hitchcock, OBE, MC via his brother Reginald (Rex). I was writing my biography (Rex Ingram: Visionary Director of the Hollywood Screen) about the older Hitchcock, and soon realised that one of the defining influences on his life and work was his close relationship with his brother.

010 Kinnetty Village
Kinnitty Village about 1910

The Hitchcock family and Kinnitty
The Hitchcocks were born in Dublin, Rex on 18 January 1893, Frank on 15 March 1896. The family moved to Nenagh in 1898, to Borrisokane in 1901, and to Kinnitty in 1903. Their father, Rev. Hitchcock, was a Church of Ireland rector, whose appointment to Kinnitty was prompted by concerns for the health of his delicate wife. Kathleen. Rev. Hitchcock was a man of firm character; alongside his normal parochial duties he was an aficionado of military affairs. He wrote numerous books, some on predictable ecclesiastical matters, others in the vein of the Cultural Revival celebrating old Irish folktales and a pre-colonial past of magic and superstition. He was also a keen boxer, and rigged up a boxing ring in the stables of the rectory at Kinnitty to toughen up the boys. Kathleen, by contrast, was artistic and dreamy, much loved in the parish for her caring manner. Her early death in 1908, when the boys were barely in their teens, threw a pall over the Hitchcock home that Rex for one never fully recovered from. She left behind a material legacy, too, the wonderful wooden carvings on the panels of the pulpit in the Church of Ireland.

018 The Rector House
The old rectory at Kinnitty

Rex and Frank Hitchcock, born into privilege but not wealth
Rex and Frank were children of their time and background. They were born into privilege but not wealth; their friends were the Big House protestants of the Midlands, yet their family circumstances were dictated by the meagre income of a Church of Ireland rector. Both combined artistic leanings with a fascination with the military. These traits were to surface in both young men, but in very different ways.
In June 1911, still shaken by the loss of his mother, Rex packed his bags and left Ireland for America. Frank’s life had taken a more conventional turn. He attended Campbell College in Belfast and then trained at Sandhurst. He initially joined the 6th Leinsters but was subsequently attached to the 2nd Leinsters, whose depot at Birr was five miles from the rectory at Kinnitty. Four years after his brother had left home, on 16 May 1915, Frank set off for war. His valise rolled and reduced to the regulation 35 lb weight, his Smith & Wesson revolver at his side, the young man took his leave of the rectory at Kinnitty. He was in good spirits, and even the sight of bodies being unloaded into the harbour following the torpedoing of the Lusitania could not quell his excitement. His father saw him off at Dublin and Hitchcock handed him his sword and Sam Browne as a parting gift. (Later, during his last tour of the trenches in 1917, Hitchcock came across a rusty Webley lying beside a skeleton, had it cleaned up, and gave it to his father, who carried it round with him for safety during the Civil War.)

While Frank was experiencing the early horrors of trench warfare, Rex was making his way in the early film industry
While Frank was experiencing the early horrors of trench warfare, Rex was making his way in the early film industry. A short period of study at Yale had fired him with a love of sculpture that never left him and that he now tried to transfer to his filmmaking practice. A gifted, intelligent, obstinate man, he soon became known for his meticulous, artistic approach to making silent films. Early in his professional career, he changed his name to Rex Ingram, after his mother Kathleen, née Ingram.
Rex too attempted to enlist, winding up in Canada with the Royal Flying Corps. He was, however, almost impossible to train, eventually crashing his ‘Curtis Jenny’ (the Curtiss JN-4) so disastrously that he was seriously injured and never saw action. Frank’s record of his experiences in the trenches would ultimately be published as Stand To, A Diary of the Trenches 1915-1918. It provides a vivid picture of everyday life, and most of all death. After one particularly brutal encounter, at Hooge in August of 1915, Hitchcock was on patrol at dawn. The sun rose to an appalling sight:
Everywhere lay the dead. The ridge in our rear was covered with dead men who had been wiped out in the final assault of the German position; their faces were blackened and swollen from the three days’ exposure to the August sun, and quite unrecognisable. Some of the bodies were badly dismembered; here and there a huddled up heap of khaki on the brink of a shell-crater told of a direct hit.

Frank Hitchcock
1. Lt. Col. Francis Clere Hitchcock MC, OBE. Reproduced with permission from Sally Hardy

Frank survived the war although his health remained fragile to the end of his days. Rex and he kept up a lifelong correspondence and 1921 Rex completed the film that was to catapult him to the highest pinnacle of Hollywood success, The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. With Valentino as its star, it is a searing anti-war film that lingers long in the trenches. One can only imagine that Rex was thinking of his brother’s experiences as he shot those scenes.

Hitchcock Stand to book
The reprint of the 1937 classic

Different lives but an uncommonly similar legacy

In their different ways, the Hitchcock brothers wrote about war and filmed war stories that reflected a common sensibility. Stand To and The Four Horsemen share an understanding that war tested men’s bravery as much as it destroyed them. Both men were drawn to militarism and yet horrified by its consequences. If Rex, with his artistic leanings, was closer to his mother and Frank closer to his bluff father, they were still deeply connected. Time, world events, and geography kept them apart and Rex went on to an extraordinary career as one of the leading directors of the silent era. When he died unexpectedly in July 1950, Frank was devastated. Although their lives were to be so different, the brothers’ legacy, on page and on screen, was uncommonly similar.

Ruth Barton

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